Is it Better to Have High or Low Expectations?

Setting expectations: Is it better to aim high and often not succeed or aim low and often succeed?

When it comes to expectations, my preference is to aim low and then be happy when I meet or exceed them. I know that approach doesn’t work for everyone, so I wanted to explore when it may or may not work. I think it might help to break the expectation/doing/result process into steps.

This process is by no means scientific; it’s really just me pulling something out of my ass.

  1. Identifying something to do
  2. Evaluating the desire to do it
  3. Anticipating the reward that will result from doing it
  4. Anticipating the effort/resources/spoons that will be necessary to do it
  5. Making a decision whether to do it or not
  6. Setting your expectations and navigating any psychological messiness that may arise
  7. Find motivation to take action
  8. Take action (which is limited by capacity)
  9. Evaluate reward
  10. Evaluate outcome vs. expectations

Making a decision

The first 5 steps are about making a decision about what you want to do.

I see step 2 (evaluating the desire to do a thing) as related to but distinct from motivation. If we’re talking about potentially going from A to B, I see desire as caring about B being a place to get to, and motivation as the oomph to actually move you from A to B. Evaluating desire is where I see apathy coming into play; if I don’t give a rat’s ass about place B, that’s a different thing from wanting to get to B but not having the motivation to make it happen.

Steps 3 and 4 involve a combination of self-awareness and making guesses about the future when it comes to reward and capacity, which we’ll get to shortly.

At step 5, you might just decide fuck it, you can’t be bothered, and just move on. How willing you are to say fuck it probably has a lot to do with what you expect of yourself more generally as well as what you think others expect of you. The inner critic might not be interested in accepting fuck it as an option.

Setting expectations

Okay, so you’ve made the decision that you do want to move from point A to point B, and now it’s time to figure out what you expect from yourself on that journey and where you expect to end up. All kinds of psychological messiness could get in the way here, including perfectionism, procrastination, and other forms of self-sabotage.

The reality gap is the difference between our expectations and reality. The bigger the reality gap, the more we suffer. We can’t necessarily control reality, but we can adjust our expectations. When expectations are set so high that there’s guaranteed to be a substantial gap between reality and those expectations, that’s likely to sign you up for a big dollop o’ suffering.


The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines motivation as: “the impetus that gives purpose or direction to behavior and operates in humans at a conscious or unconscious level… Motives are frequently divided into (a) physiological, primary, or organic motives, such as hunger, thirst, and need for sleep; and (b) personal, social, or secondary motives, such as affiliation, competition, and individual interests and goals.”

Motivation can be intrinsic (i.e. we’re motivated to do something for our own sake) or extrinsic (we’re motivated to do it for other people’s sake). Intrinsic motivation is likely to give you a stronger boost, but extrinsic motivation may be more accessible.

Motivation doesn’t necessarily have to precede action; sometimes it comes after acting, and other times it doesn’t come at all. But if you wait until you feel motivated before doing things, you may just end up waiting forever.


Illness can do a lot to limit capacity. Whether your mental illness is acting up, you’ve got a migraine, or you’re having a chronic pain flare, your capacity in the present may be significantly less than your capacity when you’re doing your best.

I see a few factors coming into play when anticipating capacity. One is self-awareness; maybe you’ve learned from past experience that on migraine days, you need to hide out in a dark hole and do absolutely nothing. Another is where you are on the spectrum of resistance to acceptance. Acceptance can mean knowing that depression limits your energy and finding workarounds to help you conserve energy, while resistance can mean not wanting to let depression limit what you can do. The inner critic may have a lot to say about whether or not you give yourself permission to limit your expectations.

If you’re regularly overestimating your capacity, you’re probably setting your expectations higher than what you’re able to achieve. On the other hand, if you’re regularly low-balling your capacity, you may end up doing less than you’re actually capable of.


The neurotransmitter dopamine and the region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens play a role in the reward system, although they’re not the only kids in town. This system involves multiple phases: appetitive (reward-seeking) and consummative (reward-experiencing), and then learning based on those experiences.

Anhedonia (reduced ability to experience pleasure) can be a symptom of mental illnesses like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. It can affect both reward-seeking and reward-experiencing, and the longer it goes on, the more you become conditioned not to expect much of a reward in the future. If I didn’t care much about getting to point B in the first place, and then when I got there it was meh, I’m going to be even less likely to give a rat’s ass about moving from point A to point B in the future.

Evaluating outcome vs. expecations

You may evaluate the same outcome positively or negatively depending on expectations. If you got 80% on a test but expected 90%, you’ll probably be disappointed. On the other hand, if you got 80% but only expected 70%, you’ll probably be happy.

If you expected perfection, unless you got 100% on that test, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. Let’s say the test was on technical aspects of blogging, and in your mind, 85% would be the bare minimum to be a “real” blogger. With your 80%, it’s hello, impostor syndrome.

Where do things get messy?

What might work best for a given person probably depends on what their rate-limiting step is. In chemistry, that’s the step that does the most to slow the entire reaction down.

For me, the rate-limiting step is capacity. Depression slows down my brain and my body, and that limits what I can do. I’ve gotten to a place of acceptance around that, and I’m generally pretty good at evaluating where I’m at with capacity.

The other major factor for me is anhedonia fucking with the whole reward thing. When I’m at point A, I don’t give a rat’s ass about point B. Then if I get to point B, I still don’t give a rat’s ass about it. If I have a reason to do something (e.g. the guinea pigs need their cage cleaned), I can drum up the motivation to make it happen. Motivation is generally not a rate-limiting step for me. Psychological messiness can play a role, but if I’m sick enough that my head is really messy, that’s affecting my capacity too, and that still tends to be the rate-limiting step.

I think keeping expectations low works well for me because of that combination of factors. Now it’s your turn—which steps cause you the most problems? Do you tend to set your expectations on the high or low side?

43 thoughts on “Is it Better to Have High or Low Expectations?”

  1. I like to have high hopes but low expectations. I hope that makes sense. If my expectation is too high I can be let down, but if my hopes are too low, life loses meaning.

    One expectation I’ve been having trouble meeting lately is sufficient alone time. After the EIB reading on Sunday, I had expected I would be able to find time to be alone for an hour to recharge. I wasn’t permitted that aloneness and in fact was bombarded with a sense of forced social obligations for hours following the read. As a result I am wanting to be alone for even longer, since I never got that single hour, and the opportunity to recharge.

    The reading however went better than I’d anticipated, so I did not feel let down by the outcome. It was an energy drain though (which certain people, perhaps more extroverted, have difficulty grasping.) Had I even had that single hour of space, I would be a healthier person today, even four days later.

    Thanks for teaching me the meaning of Anhedonia. I think I’ve had quite a bit of that lately. Great post, I loved your list of ten.

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